Friday, March 27, 2009

B: Lent IV (RCL) 22 March 2009

John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9

I grew up in a tea-totaling environment, so I was never conditioned to hang out it bars. But when California banned smoking in all restaurants and bars, Brenda and I very often preferred to have dinner in the bar or lounge rather than the main dining area of a restaurant. A cocktail lounge is a very … what shall we say? … a very fluid place, is it not? It can be a place of relaxation and enjoyment and camaraderie with friends. And it can also be a place of mystery and … shall we say, mischief. After spending time in a bar, people often end up saying and doing things they later come to regret. And the consistent thing about such places is that the lights are always dim, sometimes so dim that you can barely see what you’re drinking or eating. I don’t know that we can exactly say why, but I don’t know of anybody, myself included, who would enjoy being in a lounge with the lights turned up to what we would consider normal in, say, an office, or a supermarket, or even a living room.

And I can’t help but be reminded of this whenever I read the nineteenth verse of the third chapter of St John’s gospel: “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” I’m not saying that everything that goes on in a bar is evil, but a lot of evil things go on in bars, and it’s really no wonder at all that we like to keep the lights low in such places, because when the lights are low, we can’t quite see what’s going on, and that inability to see enables us to deceive ourselves about ourselves. Darkness can be downright addicting, because it’s a powerful anesthetic; it relieves the pain of what we might see if we looked at ourselves clearly, in the cold light of day. Unfortunately, addiction is a form of bondage, and our attachment to darkness can also prevent us from seeing and knowing our true selves, and from living the lives to which God called us when he made us.

Jesus addresses this precarious human condition in his well-known dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus as recorded for us in the third chapter of St John’s gospel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to pick his brain about some questions that were really bugging him. Jesus says, “You’ve got to be born again,” and Nicodemus says, “Well, how does that work, exactly?” and Jesus goes on about spirit and flesh and water and such things and finally arrives when we pick it up in this morning’s gospel reading:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

The antidote to what ails us as human beings is something Jesus calls Eternal Life.  Eternal Life is what can lead us out of the darkness to which we have become addicted. Eternal Life is what can free us from our fear of seeing ourselves clearly and knowing ourselves truly.  Jesus wants to give us Eternal Life, and he tells Nicodemus that we receive Eternal Life by looking at Jesus specifically as he is “lifted up.” And when he says “lifted up,” he means something very specific.

But before we can go there, we need to make sure we’re up to speed on the Old Testament reference Jesus makes when he says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.”  Our first reading from the Book of Numbers told us the story. The ancient Hebrews had been freed from slavery in Egypt but were wandering in the Sinai desert for a generation under Moses’ leadership. Their camp was infested by poisonous snakes and people were getting bitten and dying. The Lord told Moses to make an image—a statue, in effect—of the sort of snake that was bothering them, and he told Moses to lift this faux-snake up where people could see it. Moses did just that, and, sure enough, when a snake-bitten person looked up at it, they were healed.  So what Jesus is telling Nicodemus, in effect, is that all human beings are snake-bit—snake-bit by the power of Sin and Death. This is why we like the lights turned low in bars; this is why we prefer darkness over light; this is why we are afraid to see ourselves and know ourselves as we really are. And what, then, do we need to do? We need to look up and live. We need to look on Jesus, lifted up for us as Moses’ serpent statue was lifted up for the people in the wilderness. And how is Jesus lifted up for us? He is lifted up on the cross. He is lifted up in his resurrection. He is lifted up in his ascension back to the right hand of the Father. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Unfortunately, one inference many of us make when we encounter passages of scripture such as this is that “eternal life” is a possession that we own and have stashed away so we can forget about it until we need it. We think of Eternal Life the way we think of a coin collection, or a stamp collection, or a baseball card collection. It’s stuck away in a drawer. We know it’s there, and we’re glad it’s there, but we may go several days without thinking about it. We hope that it will increase in value, and that should the day come that we need to cash it in, we’ll be able to do so at a profit. Eternal Life isn’t something we need now, it’s something we’ll need later. So we have it now so we will have it later. Someone might ask us, “Are you saved? Do you have Eternal Life?” and we’ll want to say, “Why sure. I ‘looked up’ at Jesus, so I’m saved. I have Eternal Life. I don’t exactly need it yet, but I have it for when I do need it.”  

But I’m here today to tell you that looking “up” at Jesus is not simply a one-time move, a mere glance. Rather, it is a matter of gazing at the “lifted up” Jesus and keeping our gaze fixed there until we are completely healed. And what makes this kind of challenging is that when we look up at Jesus, he looks back at us, and his gaze can be quite uncomfortable, because penetrating light emanates from his eyes. We don’t like being looked at by penetrating light. It’s like if somebody all of a sudden kicks up the lights in the cocktail lounge at 11 PM. We might see things we’d prefer not to see. We might feel just a little bit … judged. As Jesus tells Nicodemus,  

this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

You see, as long as we think of Eternal Life as a possession that we acquire and then hide away until we need it—that is, as we tend to think of it, when we die—then we are subject to what I might call photophobia—and I’m not talking about fear of having your picture taken(!) but fear of light. Jesus says, “… every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” But when we keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, looking up and persisting in looking up at him “lifted up” for our salvation, then Eternal Life becomes a present reality of our experience, something that we live in and benefit from even now, and not merely a future hope. When we can make this sort of mental move, we then have the resources at our disposal to be able to live fully in the present and fully in freedom: Free from self-deception, free from fear, and free from anxiety. Somebody get the lights. Amen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

B: Lent III (3 March 2009)

Psalm 19:7-14

Exodus 26:1-17

About 35 years ago, American involvement in the Vietnam War came to an end, and the U.S. military stopped inducting draftees. Nonetheless, the Selective Service System remained in business, and the requirement that young men register for the draft when they turn 18 was never repealed. Apparently, however, there arose a popular misimpression to the contrary, and the government bureaucrats in charge of such things were alarmed at the level of noncompliance. So they resorted to desperate measures, and retained the services of an advertising agency. The resulting campaign was run for several years during the 1990s—on television, on radio, and in print. There were several different scenarios that set up the situation, but the punchline was always the same: “It’s not just a good idea, it’s the LAW.”

It’s the law.

Those words can evoke different responses in different people. In some, they call forth humble compliance, a submission to something larger than oneself, a realization that the rule of law is the very basis of civilized society. In others, the phrase stirs up a spirit of rebellious defiance, like a playground bully exclaiming, “Oh yeah? Well make me!”

But in either case, it does get our attention. Whether we comply with the law or defy the law, our behavior is nevertheless defined in terms of the law.

In today’s liturgy, we are confronted with the ultimate expression of the concept of law: the Ten Commandments. They have been around for more than 3,000 years, and constitute the bedrock of the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition. Within the culture of Anglican Christianity, the Decalogue, as the Ten Commandments are known, is particularly conspicuous and ingrained. When Archbishop Cranmer reworked the liturgy of the Eucharist for the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he put the Ten Commandments at the very beginning of the service, and they have remained there—either prescribed or as an option—ever since. In many parish churches both in England and in older parts of America, they are engraved in stone or wood and displayed prominently on the east wall. One might argue, of course, that the Ten Commandments are honored more in the breach than in the observance—but either way, they are conspicuous.

The notion of law seems obvious enough. Every human society and community has it in one form or another. If we break the law, there is some adverse consequence, some kind of punishment, either now or later. If we keep the law, there is some sort of reward or other pleasant consequence (even if it’s just the avoidance of a negative one). But can it really be all that simplistic? I suspect we do well to disabuse ourselves of childish misconceptions

about law in general, and God’s law in particular. One of these misconceptions is that, by keeping God’s law faithfully, we can put God in our debt. By walking the straight and narrow, we can obligate God to bless us or favor us. By obeying God, we have earned our reward, and it is morally incumbent upon Him to produce it, to hand it over, as if it had been justly bought and paid for.

The fact is, though, every arrow we shoot toward the target of trying to earn God’s favor by keeping His law falls way short of the mark. The New Testament Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, and it literally means “falling short of the mark.” St Paul tells is in the epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Some of our arrows, to be sure, get further on down toward the target than others, but they all fall short. So no amount of law keeping can ethically obligate God to even give us the time of day, let alone a heavenly reward.

Another misconception thinks in terms not of results, but of effort. This is certainly a more kindly view. It doesn’t matter that we hit the target, but only that we try really hard, give it our best effort, and get as close as we can. This inclines God to love us, or perhaps only like us, or at least think we’re cute. We could do worse, I suppose, than to be God’s affectionately smiled-at pets, mascots of the kingdom of Heaven. But such a view woefully underestimates the nature and purpose of human existence—we are created, after all, in the very image and likeness of God, to be His friends, not his pets. But more than that, the “A for effort” view of keeping the law betrays a paltry understanding of the purity of God’s holiness. It isn’t that God is arbitrarily mean or cosmically uptight. But by his very nature, in his essential being, God cannot indefinitely tolerate imperfection. He is patient and long-suffering and abounding in mercy. He accepts me, as the song says, “just as I am,” but he does not wish me to remain in that condition! He wants me to be able to hit the target every time, and not ever fall short. And he will not simply move the target in order to enable me to do so. That would not be fair, either to God or to me.

Now, from a negative perspective, there’s another misimpression of what it means to be law-abiding. The experience of many is that the law is a cruel joke, by which God amuses himself by watching us fail. “Oops! There they go again, those silly humans. Won’t they ever get it right?” Or, in a less cynical and more rational mode, the law is not really “from God” at all, but, rather, a projection onto God of the human need for security, for boundaries we can rely on. The courageous thing to do is to admit that all laws are man-made, and while many of them may indeed be good ideas, we are not ultimately accountable to any of them. No law is immune from the possibility that circumstances may justify an exception. The Ten Commandments are, in effect, ten “guidelines” which are good to check in with before making an ethical decision.

Now, I hope I don’t have to tell you that I believe all of these notions—that we can obligate God by keeping the law, that we can increase the chances of God liking us if we try really hard to keep the law, that the law is a cruel joke for God’s entertainment, and the that law is merely a human invention and projection—all of these notions are based on false suppositions. But they arise from an understandable desire to integrate our immediate experience with our search for ultimate meaning, to have our conception of what is ideal for us determined by our prior experience of what is real for us. And so there are fragments of truth and goodness in what is otherwise a nasty pile of selfishness and moral relativism.

The 19th Psalm, which is part of our prayer at this liturgy, expresses in beautiful poetry what I am trying to say through less than adequate prose:  “The law of the Lord is perfect...and revives the soul.” Far from being oppressive or authoritarian, far from being lifeless and technical, the Psalmist sees God’s law as life-giving, refreshing and reviving to the soul, like water flowing through a desert. He goes on to say that the “testimony  of the wisdom”—it gives us practical aid in coping with the bewildering complexities of human relationships. “The statutes”—what more legal-sounding word is there than “statutes”?!—the “statutes of the Lord and just and rejoice the heart.” There is something beautiful about justice, just as there is in an elegantly crafted geometric pattern. Both are a joy to behold. And it is only the law that allows us to see the beauty of justice, that allows our hearts to rejoice thereby.

The Psalmist continues, “The commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.” Eyes tell the story, don’t they? When someone’s heart and soul are whole and integrated, you can tell it in his or her eyes, and vice versa. It is the commandment of the Lord that reveals the integrity of the way we live, a revelation that is visible in our eyes.

According to the Psalmist, then, there is intrinsic good that is made evident in the law. The law refreshes and nourishes and strengthens. To be nourished and refreshed and strengthened are the fruits of a life lived close to the heart of God. In fact, “keeping the law” is a practical description of what it looks like when we align ourselves with the flow of God’s loving energy.  It’s not that the law is an end in itself. We don’t keep the law just for the sake of keeping the law. In fact, our aim shouldn’t be “keeping the law” at all, it should be singing in harmony with God, allowing our energy to flow in the same direction in which his is flowing, letting our hearts assume the shape of God’s heart.

And how do we know how well we are accomplishing these aims? By means of the law. The law is a measuring stick by which we can tell how we’re doing in the process of offering ourselves to God for the purpose of being blessed and broken and given for the life of the world. The law of the Lord is perfect and just and clear. It revives the soul and gives wisdom and joy and light.

Most of us have used a computer program. Even if there’s not an appliance in our home that we call a computer, if we drive a car that’s been built in the last fifteen years, or use a cell phone, or even a microwave, we are, in fact, using a computer. Now, for everything that we use each of these “computers” for, some programer had to sit down and write what they call “lines of code”—hundreds and thousands of individual commands that tell the computer how to do what we want it to do, breaking down complex tasks into simple “Yes/No” bits of information. Of course, when we use a computer, for instance, to support a graphics program capable of creating beautiful works of visual art, most of us are not thinking about lines of code. But the lines of code—prosaic and dull and technical as they are—the lines of code are essential to the creation of the poetic and artistic and transcendently beautiful output that eventually emerges from the color printer.

“Lines of code” describe, in effect, what it “looks like” to be able to create graphic art. It’s the same relationship between God’s law and human moral behavior, human integrity. The law describes what it looks like to be attuned to God’s love, God’s ways. We can’t keep it perfectly. Much of the time, we can’t even keep it well. But by the grace of Christ, we can, in time,  be transformed into people who keep it naturally, without even thinking about it, as part of our redeemed nature. Only then will the law become obsolete. Until then, it’s a good idea to keep the law. Amen.

Monday, March 2, 2009

B: Lent I (2009)

I Peter 3:18-22

          Genesis 9:8-17

            Mark 1:9-13

            Psalm 25:3-9

One of the many things I am grateful for about being the rector of St Anne’s Church is the church building itself.  It’s a beautiful place in which to worship and pray. And one of the features of this building that I am particularly fond of is the shape and configuration of the ceiling. Now, you may have thought I was going to mention the Holy Spirit window, or the baptismal font, or our wonderful acoustics.

But the ceiling?  What’s so special about the ceiling? Well, do you know what the technical architectural name is for the part of the building where the congregation normally gathers?  It’s called the “nave”, which is derived from the same root from which we get “navy”, which makes us think immediately of great sea-going ships. A traditional church building is symbolically conceived-of as an upside down ship. This makes the peak of the roof along the lengthwise axis the keel, and the floor we walk on would be the bottom side of the deck. If you just take your mental picture of a traditional church building and flip it over and set it in water, you can see that the notion makes a certain degree of sense. 

But why? Why think of a church as a ship, and this area as the “nave?” Well, there’s another layer of symbolism here. It goes back to Noah’s ark, which was a ship, of sorts, that accomplished a very specific purpose for those who were inside it.  Our OldTestament reading today is from the tail end of the story as told in the book a Genesis, where the Lord promises to never again destroy humankind by means of  water, and provides the rainbow as a sign of this unilateral and universal covenant that he was making. 

As Genesis recounts this familiar pre-historic legend, the Lord God was disgusted with the behavior of the human race and decided to wash them all away in a flood and get a fresh start.  One family, the family of Noah, was chosen by God to carry on the human species, and to assist with the preservation of all the various forms of animal life, after the destruction of the flood. The Lord told Noah to build a great ark, which he did. And while he was building it, he endured quite a bit of ridiculing and mocking on the part of his neighbors. They thought Noah had gone completely around the bend. Even if they’d received engraved invitations to join him and his family on the   ark before he shut the door, they would have howled in laughter as they refused. 

And then it rained .... and rained ... and rained and the water rose, and the scoffers had serious second thoughts about not having gotten into the ark before it  floated away and left them to drown. But let us not dwell on the fate of those whose ability to tread water was put to the test, because they are not the main event. The main event is the ark. The waters rise, and the ark floats, and those who are on the ark are saved. St Peter, in his first epistle, which we also hear on this First Sunday in Lent, picks up on this imagery of the rising waters carrying the ark and its occupants to safety, and connects it with the sacrament of baptism. Just as the eight people on the ark were saved, as it were, “through water”—that is, by means of the flood floating the ark to its eventual safe resting place, so we who believe in Christ are saved through the agency of water, the water of baptism. This is why the baptismal font is traditionally located near the entrance to the nave, the ark, and why it is customary to mark ourselves with baptismal water when we enter the church building, because it is “through water” that we were admitted to the fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ. 

Noah’s ark, then, is a prefigurement of the Church.  Indeed, one of the names for the church, in Christian tradition, is the “ark of salvation.” The point Peter is trying to make is that those who are on the ark—Noah’s ark as a prefigurement, the church as the present reality—those whoare on the ark are utterly secure in their hope of salvation. The ark floats. Those who are in it, as long as they remain in it, cannot be harmed by the raging flood.

So the imagery of the church as an ark, which God saves, and, thereby, those who are on it, is incredibly rich. We can scarcely even mine the surface of it today, but let me try to briefly suggest three ways in which the Church is the ark which brings us to salvation.

First, the church is the place, and the only place, where we find the sacraments.  The sacrament of baptism unites us with the dying and rising of Christ and gives us new birth as children of God. The sacrament of Holy Communion, with a boost from Confirmation at some point along the way, supplies the nourishment we need to grow into “adult children” of God.  At various times, most of us find ourselves in positions where the working out of our salvation can be helped along by the sacraments of unction and reconciliation.  The majority of us are called to the sacrament of marriage, which is an abundant means of grace. And with a relative few of us, God chooses to use the sacrament of Ordination to complete the work of salvation. What a life-giving spring the sacraments are, and where else can they be found but in the Church?! 

Second, we find the word of God in the Church. Within the fellowship and worship and discipline of the church, the Word of God is proclaimed, taught, read, shared, and broken open. One can, of course, pick up a Bible and read it outside of any contact with the Church, but it is still because of the Church that that Bible is available in the first place, because the Bible is the church’s book. The Psalm for today’s Eucharist contains the petition, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.  Lead me in our truth and teach me.” Just where can one be sure to find such leading and guiding? In what context does it normatively take place? Only in the church. St Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us much today about Jesus’s forty-day sojourn facing temptation in the wilderness, but we know from Matthew that he persistently quoted scripture back to the tempter, to refute his temptations. Where did he learn the scriptures, apart from the “church” of the old covenant, the community of the synagogue and the temple?

And that leads me to my third and final point about how the Church serves as the “ark” of our salvation, which is Christian community. In these days of social fragmentation, with the breakdown of even the nuclear family, let alone the extended family, with the idea of neighborhood functionally non-existent, the hunger for community is stronger than ever. Community has always been at the heart of the Church’s ideal. We have never done it perfectly, and often done it poorly, but to an ever greater extent, it is now the only game in town. The community of the church is a place where we can know and be known, love and be loved, pray and be prayed for, rejoice with those who rejoice,  and weep with those who weep. We are united in the bond of baptism. That makes us family, that makes us community.  And through the sacraments and the word, we have the grace available to us to grow into that reality. 

The call to us this morning, just five days into Lent, is “all aboard!”, ... all aboard the ark of salvation. Don’t trust your ability to tread water, for you will surely drown in the flood. Don’t count on cutting a special deal with God to supply you with your own private life raft. Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. But the only certified method of flood survival is to get on the ark, the ark of salvation, the one holy catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. Amen.